Small Screen Quarantine – Tristan Harris & The Attention Economy

Tristan Harris TEDtalk

Thinking more about the Netflix film The Social Dilemma that I had mentioned yesterday. Tristan Harris has been on my radar for a while. He had been a design ethicist in Silicon Valley and has spent the last couple years sounding the alarm about social media running amok and degrading politics, news and quality of life in general… basically about the erosion of quality information and how it impacts individuals and society.

I felt The Social Dilemma, while being informative on the subject of how social media design works, fell far short of being the necessary call to action that might jumpstart some meaningful change. That in mind I thought perhaps more context for Tristan Harris’ goals in speaking out were in order. This TEDtalk from 3 years ago is not only more informative, but speaks to the impact of social media on an individual/personal level. That’s what’s going to help people internalize his message and start asking how these things are affecting them personally. Only then, at the very basic level, is anyone prepared to ask, “Well if it’s done this to me, what might be the larger concerns?” At that point maybe people will start talking to each other in real time, or at the very least start sharing concerns and questions on social media. Yes, there is irony there.

Our attention is the most valuable commodity in the world right now and these companies are successfully hijacking our attention. They are banking on addictive behavior so the very design is geared to promote addiction. Their algorithms are built to engage and addict…. to promote compulsive behavior. Ethics? Not a lot happening in Silicon Valley on the ethical front. That is not a sweeping generalization. The designers themselves admit it. It’s both their claim to fame and their claim to shame. They know how to addict, but very little about addiction itself. And then one might question, if they did know, would they care. Well, some do. I can only speak from my own experience with addiction, and having my attention hijacked by my own compulsive behavior. What might I have been? Where might my life have gone had my attention not been so singularly focused on one specific pastime? Anyway… These two videos are more informative than the Netflix piece, and worth watching.

And this one on targeting children specifically is a much better call to arms:

Consider “affirmation vs. information” when the affirmation side of the grab for attention is designed to affirm fear and insecurity… and how that influences group behavior. But initially, think about how any time suck impacts the quality of your own life.

Again, as with the previous post, this is not a treatise. They’re just notes.

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